Thoughts of Recurrence

Recurrence – the ten letter dirty word one faces after a cancer diagnosis.

How many times has THAT word rolled around in your brain? Based on the interactions I’ve had on my Facebook community page, Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders, if you said “too many,” I’d say you’re not alone. A few months ago, I asked my followers to rate their fears of recurrence on a scale of 1 – 10, one being “hardly any fear” and ten being “daily.” The majority of responses were well over the five mark, with seven and up being the predominant replies.

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I read that the survival rate for early stagers was around 97%. Back then, that was initially reassuring to me, but then I realized the statistics were measured in five year increments. What was this five year business? Quite frankly, I found that depressing. Fresh out of the gate, I didn’t want to survive five years. I just wanted to survive. I saw that the percentages declined from there as the years pressed on, and I realized that this wasn’t something I was going to get over or wave goodbye to in my rear-view mirror.

This message was driven home to me early on when I attended a Relay for Life in my town.  Preceding the actual event, the organizers recognized us during a ceremony. We sat, balloons in hand, in the local high school stadium. We were instructed to release our balloons as our survivorship numbers were called out. It was a way to honor us and inspire others. Only I didn’t find it that inspiring. When the announcer called out, “One year!”, a massive number of balloons were let go – including mine. Then, “Five years and under!”, another mass release. But when he got to 10, the balloons dwindled and by 15, there were just a couple. Finally 20, one balloon, I felt deflated.

As a newbie, that really freaked me out. I suppose there could be the argument that as one survives longer, participation in such activities declines, but who knows. All I remember thinking was, “Crap.” Still the eternal optimist, I put that out of my mind and started counting upward toward the number 5. I felt like my magic fifth year anniversary would mark my freedom. That’s when life insurance companies said I could take out coverage. So, you know, in my mind that was a milestone. I reached it, and I did feel a sigh of relief.

For a while.

But then I noticed these research studies steadily popping up discussing late-stage recurrence. Have you seen them?  Headlines like Breast Cancer May Come Back Even Many Years After Treatment and Breast Cancer Recurrence . . . Many Years Later.  Then, Olivia-Newton John recurred after 25 years of clean health. Of course, probably like all of you, my thoughts went to, “What if that ends up being me?”

Relax, these thoughts are pretty normal if you’ve been through a cancer diagnosis. Let’s face it, once we’re in the breast cancer community, surrounded by an inordinate amount of survivors, we eventually know someone who recurs and then, of course, someone who passes away. A lot comes with that – mostly guilt – and we realize that life is precious, that we may or may not have as much time as we thought, and that every second counts. I try to give myself a break when I have these thoughts. I find that recognizing I’m having them and admitting that I’m scared is a fine way to handle it. If they become overwhelming, I squash them down and I press on. That’s all any of us can do.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the doc with more concerns or how many scans I’ve had post-diagnosis. And regarding the squashing of recurrence thoughts, I do know these are very normal.  And that it’s no surprise when we naturally go there with every ache and pain. The fact that we go there doesn’t have to be such a bad thing either. In fact, we must stay vigilant, so it’s almost a responsibility to check out any suspicious symptom you may develop. Your normal brain will stray to “What if it’s mets?” You can expect that.  But as long as you don’t linger there, permanently paralyzed in fear, I see nothing wrong with it. Like anything, it’s a delicate balance and a part of our post-diagnosis life.

Keep livin’ victoriously,

Victorious Val

Follow Val on Facebook at Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders